21 December 2007

Sol Invictus

A cheerily pagan Midwinter's tale for you all. This is the one which went out with last year's Christmas cards. You can also read it on my website.


The card read: To Dick and Mel – Yuletide Greetings from Jez and Sandy. The design on the front depicted a trestle-table garishly laden with seasonal delicacies, a giant log burning in a grate behind.

The painted food’s profusion and glazed stickiness made Melissa feel faintly queasy.

‘Who on earth are Jez and Sandy?’ she asked her husband at breakfast, as she passed him the marmalade. ‘And do they really call you Dick?’

‘Never heard of them,’ said Richard, accepting the jar. He glanced from his newspaper to his watch. He was always wary of being drawn into a conversation when he had to catch the train. Apparently reassured, he added, ‘And no, not if they’ve got any sense. No-one’s called me Dick since school.’

‘Well, they know our name and address. We’ll have to send them one back. Did we meet them in Marrakech?’

Their overfed labrador, Boris, trundled into the room. He lay down heavily beside Richard, who absently tickled the dog’s ears as he bit into his toast.

‘Don’t think so,’ he said. ‘Wasn’t that Gerry and Alex?’

Melissa was relieved. ‘Well, there you are, then. Jez must be short for Gerry, and Alex and Sandy are both short for Alexander. Or do I mean Alexandra? Which one of them was which?’

‘No idea,’ Richard replied, immersed again in his newspaper. He didn’t seem remotely curious as to why Gerry/Jez and/or Sandy/Alex might address Melissa as ‘Mel’. She was ‘Lissa’ to close friends, and ‘Lizzie’ to her parents and sister. Only Richard himself ever called his wife ‘Mel’, and that was in the same abstracted tone in which he called Boris ‘boy’.

‘I think we’ve got a new postman,’ she murmured.

Richard glanced at his watch again. Boris began to snore. Melissa put the card up on the mantelpiece.

* * *

She caught a glimpse of him the next morning, in the early cold-and-grey of late December. He looked very young, and wore a uniform she hadn’t seen before. She wasn’t sure whether his red cap was part of the outfit or something more festive. It didn’t look like a Father Christmas hat, but she knew that folklore and traditions changed from generation to generation.

‘Yo! Saturnalia,’ read Richard reluctantly, when she showed him the card she’d picked out of the pile. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Saturnalia? It was a Roman festival, I think,’ Melissa answered. She flipped the card closed to show a pile of traditional-looking carved toys – dice, tops, wooden soldiers. ‘What they used to have at midwinter, instead of Christmas.’

Melissa read a lot. It was one of the few things there were to do while all the commuters were at work. Their Kent village might be quiet, the station unmanned and the post office about to close, but somehow they still warranted a little rural library. Melissa suspected an elderly, wealthy relative’s influence on some county councillor or other.

‘Bloody funny thing to say,’ Richard grumbled, collecting a fresh slice from the toaster. ‘Who’s it from?’

‘Marcus, apparently.’

‘Mark at work?’ He cast around for the butter, which Melissa passed to him.

‘I thought he was just Mark,’ she said. ‘But darling, it’s addressed to “Richard and Debbie”.’

Richard dropped his butter-knife on the floor. Boris, startled from his torpor by the clatter, gave a reproachful yelp.

‘Debbie’s your secretary, isn’t she?’ Melissa felt slightly aggrieved.

‘Mark must have got the two of you mixed up,’ said Richard, busying himself with the hunt for a fresh knife. ‘Head in the clouds, that one.’

‘I remember,’ Melissa said. ‘I worked for him for two years. You’d think he’d remember my name.’

When they’d been married, she and Richard had agreed there wasn’t a lot of point in her carrying on at the office. Richard could support them both on an accountant’s salary: she’d benefit from the leisure time. Melissa had never been particularly bright or gifted, and the arrangement had seemed to make reasonable sense at the time.

Of course, she’d had some expectations then which life, and Richard, had never quite fulfilled. Still, she couldn’t complain. It would have been rather churlish under the circumstances.

‘Oh, don’t mind him,’ said Richard. ‘Dopy as hell, Mark. Marcus. Whatever his name is.’

Melissa put the card in the middle of the mantelpiece, next to Jez and Sandy’s Yuletide greetings.

* * *

On the Friday, the postman brought the biggest pile of Christmas cards yet.

They were predictable enough for the most part: trees and stars, robins and lambs, Santas and Jesuses. All the usual reminders of hope, of birth and well-filled bonhomie amidst the bleak and hungry emptiness of winter. All except one were from the same familiar names.

The picture on the front of the exception was a stylised diagram of earth and sun, indicating exactly how midwinter solstice happened in the northern hemisphere. Citizens! the printed matter read. Fraternal Greetings on the occasion of the Hibernal Festival.

‘Must be a joke,’ said Richard, when she showed him. ‘You know, “Happy Politically Correct Christmas” sort of thing.’ He sounded doubtful.

‘It isn’t very funny,’ she said.

‘No.’ He peered uneasily at his watch, then out of the window at the driving rain. ‘It’ll take me longer to get to the station today.’

The postman had been just a smudge that morning, black coat and scarlet cap against the sleety dawn.

‘Hang on,’ said Richard, his early-morning synapses catching up with him. ‘Let me see that one again.’

Melissa passed it over. She was surprised he’d been paying that much attention.

‘To Lissa and Guy,’ read Richard. ‘Who the bloody hell’s Guy?’ He sounded quite cross.

‘I’ve no idea,’ Melissa said quietly.

Guy was an old, old boyfriend. He’d been her first really serious crush, and some years later her first lover. The two of them had talked for a while about settling down together, but then he’d gone away to university and found somebody on his newly-acquired intellectual level.

They’d both been very young. She still thought of him sometimes.

Staring at the signature Richard added, ‘And who’s Britannica?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ she repeated, truthfully. She was sure she’d have remembered someone called that. ‘Like you said, darling, it must be a joke.’

‘Well, it’s not bloody funny,’ he repeated. ‘If I find out who’s sending these damn things…’

‘You’d better hurry,’ said Melissa. ‘Your train’s nearly due.’

She put the card up later, after he left. The tiny golden sun shone brightly, between the polished toys of Saturnalia and the glazed meats of Yule.

* * *

The next morning, the Saturday, she was waiting for him.

He was no more than a boy, fifteen or sixteen at most. He wore a tunic, and a cloak against the midwinter cold. Its black, fur-trimmed interior sparkled with stars.

His face was Mediterranean with a hint of the Middle East, and his red cap was buoyed up on a tide of dark curls.

Grinning, he showed her two stiff envelopes. She took the one addressed to her, and opened it.

Dear Lissa, Guy and Felix, it began. It wished the three of them a happy Lux Arturi, and expressed the hope that Brigida would make their lands and family fertile during the coming year.

Melissa had always liked the name Felix. Richard hated it. It had been one of the last things the two of them had disagreed about with any degree of joy or passion. That had been a year or so after their wedding, before the miscarriage.

She read the signature. Though not the name of anyone she knew, it was a name she recognised. She looked up into the postman’s grinning face, ruddy and glowing in the leaden English winter.

‘Thank you,’ she told him. ‘I’m ready now.’

Taking the second card, she closed the door behind her, and slid it in softly through the letterbox. Inside the house Boris growled gently, then subsided into sleep.

The young man spread his cloak wide, welcoming her into its summer warmth.

* * *

When Richard got up later, hungry, craving coffee, Melissa was gone. Probably to the shops, he thought. Typical. Why hadn’t she gone yesterday, when he was at work?

He needed breakfast. The doormat held a single card, addressed to him alone. He opened it with a butter-knife he found on the kitchen floor.

The picture was of a young boy hatching out of an egg, although it might perhaps have been a rock. Sunbeams poured from the child like honey. He wore a red cap, and a cloak the colour of the summer night.

Hail Richard (and Boris), he read. A very merry Mithras-tide to you and your household. All the best, Guy, Lissa and Felix. He stared at it for a while.

Then he threw it in the bin, and started looking for the frying-pan.

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2006.

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